CHAMP -- Three teams of state biologists scoured the meandering Manokin River in this remote corner of Somerset County yesterday, searching for signs that Pfiesteria, the toxic microbe that killed fish and sickened watermen two years ago, has again turned up in Maryland waters.
About a week since learning that three people have reported symptoms of Pfiesteria-related illness after coming in contact with water from the river or its Back Creek tributary, officials say they've found no evidence of the microbe in its toxic form.
Scientists from the state Department of the Environment conducted tests yesterday to determine whether a gasoline spill or some other chemical could have caused the health problems.
Investigators have found no dead fish or fish with telltale bloody sores that would show that Pfiesteria, which is often present in a benign state in tidal bay waters, has reverted to the deadly form that killed thousands of fish and forced the closure of three Maryland waterways in 1997.
Biologist Harry Rickabaugh said yesterday that nine of 191 Atlantic menhaden, a species that is vulnerable to Pfiesteria, caught in Back Creek showed minor problems. "This is pretty much what you'd find anywhere," Rickabaugh said. "The fish appear to be fine."
Watermen, recreational fishermen and boaters along a two-mile stretch of the creek were cautioned yesterday about potential health concerns, but the river remained open to fishermen and boaters.
"This is being driven by human health concerns," said Dave Goshorn, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "The fish seem to be fine. They appear to be healthy, and their behavior is normal."
State health officials said that the three people who reported skin rashes, headaches, coughs and other symptoms associated with Pfiesteria-related illness are not commercial watermen. Two have been interviewed, but officials have not determined if their ailments could have been caused by the microbe.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who flew over Back Creek yesterday before boarding a boat to tour the Nanticoke River, expressed concern about a possible repeat of the Pfiesteria outbreaks. "We know we're at the same weather and very dry conditions we had in 1997," he said.
In the two years since 13 people were sickened by the first toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks, health officials have evaluated more than 30 other people who experienced similar problems. None has been found to have a Pfiesteria-related illness, according to Robert Venezia, who heads a statewide health reporting network that was established after the 1997 outbreak.
State officials came under fire yesterday from a frequent critic who accused them of underestimating the problem.
Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker, a family practitioner from Pocomoke City who has conducted extensive research and written a book on his theory that heavy metals used in fungicides could cause the health problems associated with the microbe, insisted yesterday that Pfiesteria is far more prevalent than state officials believe.
"Since June 6, I've treated 20 patients who showed symptoms of Pfiesteria-related illness," said Shoemaker, who disputes conventional scientific wisdom that labels nutrient runoff from chicken manure as the prime culprit in Pfiesteria outbreaks.
The state health department's Venezia says Shoemaker has not reported those cases to the agency.
As news reports brought renewed attention, Shoemaker and 30 scientists from federal, state (including Delaware, Virginia and South Carolina) and local agencies gathered yesterday at a long-planned seminar at Salisbury State University to compare notes on the environmental effects of heavy metals.
Whatever the cause of Pfiesteria outbreaks, many watermen and recreational boaters who use the Manokin and the nearby Pocomoke River, say they also believe the problem is widespread.
Jim Porter, an attorney who practices in Pocomoke City, has lived 400 feet from the river for a dozen years and has fished the area most of his life. He and his wife, Bonita, say they have suffered symptoms similar to those first seen in 1997, including headaches and breathing difficulties.
Both say they have been successfully treated by Shoemaker.
"This is a concern because the general public has no idea this organism could be so widespread," Porter said. "And the symptoms can be serious."
Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.